Nighttime in DFW

The people of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex are fortunate to share our city with a wide variety of urban wildlife. We have here in the city just about every variety of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, and invertebrate that you might expect to find anywhere in North Texas.

Many species are active all throughout the day, which works in our favor when trying to have a look at one. But other critters restrict their activities to the night, preferring to go about their business under the cover of darkness.

Finding out more about what these critters do while most of us are sleeping requires a little bit of extra effort. With the help of my trusty trail cameras, I recently set out to gain some insight into the activities of the denizens of the dark. In this article we are going to take a closer look at nocturnal wildlife activity that normally goes sight-unseen.

Beaver Takeout

Beavers, the big dam-building rodents, are mostly nocturnal in their habits. They spend their days dozing in their dens or lodges, gathering strength for what is typically a very busy night. For the Beaver, the hours between sunset and sunrise are spent on a variety of activities. They fell trees and cut branches. They clear ponds of their reed beds; the cut cattails are packed with mud and used to construct dams. Beavers nibble on greens such as Pickerel Weed and Ragweed throughout the night. They build and maintain lodges. And they create scent stations soaked with castoreum to mark their territory.

Beavers also create well defined takeouts in places where they enter and exit the water. Because these spots can provide enhanced access to the water’s edge, they often become very popular with other species of wildlife as well. It’s not uncommon to find a number of game trails radiating away from a prime Beaver takeout.

A Beaver feeding on Pickerel Weed
A mother and her pup exiting the water
This Beaver takeout was popular with other animals as well.
In this case a Bobcat stops by to investigate
Next a Raccoon passes by the Beaver takeout
A Beaver creating a scent mount
Piling up mud and leaves
Applying Castoreum
A Bobcat is enamored by the ordors
A Wilson’s Snipe is attracted to a Beaver’s handiwork
As is a Rat
And a Raccoon

Front Porch Skunks

One afternoon my neighbor stopped me by the mailbox with something very important to tell me. Evidently, the night before they had spotted a whole gaggle of baby Raccoons milling about on my front porch. This was big news for me! I would definitely need to set out a trail camera and get some photos of the little rascals. That evening I set up a camera trap on my front porch, very eager to see the pictures it would record.

I got up early the next morning to pull the camera’s SD card, and inserted it into my computer so that I could view its contents. I could tell right away that a sizable number of pictures had been recorded. I selected the first thumbnail that caught my eye and double-clicked to enlarge it for a better look. To my surprise, the starkly black and white critter that appeared on my computer screen was definitely NOT a Raccoon. Instead, my camera had recorded photo after photo of a trio of juvenile Striped Skunks exploring every corner of my porch.

It turns out that the trio’s mother had dug her den under the stairs leading from the sidewalk up to our front door. The baby skunks had only recently grown old enough for their first exploration away from their home burrow. Naturally, they ended up on my front porch!

When I think back to this occurrence, I am reminded that we had just brought home our first dogs just a few weeks early. Two young lab-mixes, both with lots of puppy energy. In an effort to help burn off some of that excess mojo, we walked the dog several times a day—blasting out the front door on each ocassions. In retrospect is clear that we were very lucky that we didn’t discover the skunk family in a much less charming way.

Uh, that’s not a Raccoon
Neither are those!

Neighborhood Bobcat

Bobcats are regular visitor to our yards—especially after dark. Most all neighborhoods in Dallas/Fort Worth can be expected to have a number resident Bobcats at any given time. But Bobcats like to stay out of sight and are good at hiding; they are therefore seldom seen. That doesn’t mean they are not present. These wild cats are small enough to find cover behind a minimal amount of landscaping, and they are even clever enough to use the storm sewer system as a covert subway system as they move around our neighborhoods. Their nocturnal habits make it even more unlikely that you will see one.

The easiest way to judge the likelihood of Bobcats being present in your neighborhood is make note of the other wildlife living there that you can spot during the day. If you have rabbits, and squirrels, and doves—favorite prey animals—frequenting your subdivision, then you most likely also have resident Bobcats!

A Bobcat patrolling the neighborhood at dusk
It’s almost like he’s posing for the camera!
This is the same Bobcat recorded in another part of the yard at an earlier date.
And this little guy is why the Bobcat was there!

Bird Feeder Rats

Understandably, not everyone will be excited to learn about this particular flavor of nocturnal urban wildlife. We have several different species of rats sharing the metroplex with us… There’s the Black Rat, the Norwegian Rat, the Hispid Cotton Rat, and the Eastern Woodrat. All are very resilient and adaptable. They thrive in our neighborhoods, business parks, shopping centers, and in the undeveloped areas in between. No matter where you live or what you do, some number of rats will always be present.

In the case of the pictures below, these Black Rats have come to a bird feeder late at night to gorge on sunflower seeds. Contrary to popular belief, bird feeders are not the reason we have rats in our neighborhoods. There is plenty of foodstuff for them to eat around our homes, even without the bird seed. But, bird feeders do concentrate the activity of rats in one particular spot, and that can be a problem, especially if they find an easy segue from there into your house.

The bird feeder goes up earlier in the day, and the rats arrive on cue just after dark.
Black Rats on a bird feeder

Storm Sewer Bobcats

I mentioned earlier in this post that Bobcat use our neighborhood storm sewer systems to move around underground… Well, here’s the proof! I dropped a little trail camera/tripod combo down into one of our street runoff drains, and in just a fews days I had a nice collection of subterranean Bobcat pictures!

This dainty little female Bobcat moves from storm drain to storm drain underground by following the interconnected network of pipes. In the pictures below you will see her enter the drain through a pipe outlet. She continues in far enough to investigate my cameras, before turning back and exiting the same way she had just come.

What’s more, this clever momma actually raised a litter of kittens down in this system of manmade caverns. The sound of baby Bobcats playing and wrestling in the leaf litter covering the bottom of this storm drain is what first drew my attention. Once I had seen the playful kittens, I knew I’d have to come back with a camera trap to learn more about what was going on under the ground in my neighborhood!

The Bobcat enters the storm drain
She cautiously approached the camera
Investigating my camera trap setup
Exiting the way she entered

Screech Owls

There is something special about owls. Somehow they are a little different from other birds… Maybe it is that they have a face and can appear to emote—much more so than with many other avian species. In any case, people love owls, and fortunately for those of us living in Dallas/Fort Worth there is a species of owl that is perfect to invite into your own backyard!

Meet the Eastern Screech Owl! This tiny little owl is about the size of a box of Pop Tarts. They come in several different colors—Brown, Gray, and Red. And, the Eastern Screech Owl sings a lovely, haunting trill that is occasionally augmented with a horse-like whinny.

These owls thrive in suburbia. All it takes to attract them to your yard is a few trees and an owl box built to the proper specs. Install one near your house, and before you know it you’ll have a family of these owls helping to manage the populations of rodents, reptiles, and other small critters found around your home!

An Eastern Screech Owl on a nest box
Returning with a rat—large prey for the screech owl!
This time the male brings back a Mediterranean Gecko…
…which the juveniles take readily!
Two juvenile Eastern Screech Owls sharing a gecko

Urban Cemetery

There is wildlife to be found even in our most urbanized areas. The pictures below were all recorded in a small cemetery located in uptown just North of downtown Dallas. Every type of North Texas critter you might expect was photographed, along with a few surprises! Have a look!

A big Opossum trundles by
Followed a short time later by a chunky Raccoon
This Gray Fox was a surprise visitor to our very urban camera trap!

The Deadfall

Every so often, a large tree—blighted or in loose soil—will fall to the ground when a powerful storm system rolls through the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. The resulting deadfall is often an interesting place to setup a camera trap. The tree used for this collection of photographs was a massive Bur Oak with a trunk diameter of around 4 feet at the base—one of the largest trees in the immediate area.

For this set I mounted my camera inline on the top surface of the now horizontal tree trunk. Almost every night some critter or the other wandered by hoping to find something of interest on the fallen tree. Sometimes the animal was coming and sometime it was going—Face shots and tail shots resulted. Check the pictures below to see if you can identify the the animal from its undercarriage view. Checks your answers against the face shot pictures that follow!

Undercarriage Number One!
Undercarriage Number Two!
Undercarriage Number Three!
Raccoon!
Opossum!
Bobcat!

Deep Woods Does

Towards the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, White-tailed Deer females–along with their first year offspring—begin to form herds. Does are generally solitary while caring for their fawns over the summer, but this behavior pattern does a complete 180 as the cooler weather of fall approaches. It’s always a great pleasure to view the pictures that are recorded when one of these social groups spends some time in front a camera trap!

It is thought that this herding behavior benefits the first year fawns by gathering them into groups that will help them make the transition to independence. The young deer will soon be left to their own accord as their mothers’ attentions shift during the run up to mating season.

A herd of does responding to the sound of my camera activating
Another herd of female White-tailed Deer wading through a vernal pond

River Otter Takeout

Much as is the case with the American Beaver, Dallas/Fort Worth area River Otters also have preferred places to haul themselves out of their watery homes and onto dry land. These takeouts may be in support of a communal otter latrine, or maybe they are just a particularly good spot for otters to sit and eat crayfish. Other times these takeouts may connect long game trails used by the otters to move between one body of water and another. Whenever an otter take out is used by a family group there can be a lot of activity for a trail camera to record. See below for some photographic examples…

A mother otter and her young pups exit the slough
Juvenile otters are full of mischief!
Otter family groups can be quite large!
Back into the water!

Coyotes

Coyotes can be active all throughout the day, but our urban Coyotes have become especially adept at operating after dark. These wild canines have many activities that keep them busy during the nighttime hours. Among these are patrolling, hunting, protecting their territory, caring for their young, and sometimes even catching up on their rest.

A Coyote and an Armadillo sharing a grassy meadow
A Coyote family group with young pups
A fine looking Coyote perched on a deadfall
A Coyote carrying recently captured prey

With a certain level of proficiency at tracking and sign reading you might—from time to time—stumble across a situation like the one illustrated in the pictures that follow. What we have here is a recently dried pond bed late in summer. The newly exposed flats were only beginning to sprout pioneering plant growth. And while the soil was dry and grainy, it was of a consistency that still allowed it to record tracks and other sign quite well.

One afternoon while I was out scouting for new places to leave my cameras, I noticed an abundance of Coyote tracks on the bare earth were the pond had been only a week before. Moreover, there were a number of places where it was clear that the Coyotes had scratched out beds for themselves, spending many nighttime hours recumbent on the cooler—and bug free—dry dirt.

I set several trail cameras around the old pond bed, leaving several to watch only a few feet from where I expected Coyotes to bed down for the night. Below you will find a sampling of the many pictures my cameras recorded…

A Coyote family group enters the dried pond bed
A pair of Coyotes picks their spot to bed down
Getting some rest safely secluded from the surrounding neighborhoods
They seemed to take turns snoozing
While one Coyote would sleep, the other would keep watch
Something has attracted their attention—possibly others
in the family group returning to the pond bed

Bedded Down Deer

White-tailed Deer also bed down in the woods when they need a break and/or have a cud to chew. Just by chance I set one of my cameras in a place where it would regularly capture a resting doe center frame. In this particular case I was using a cellular camera, which meant that any pictures it recorded would be instantly uploaded to the cloud. I was able to keep tabs on this camera trap in real time! The doe’s favorite place to recharge her batteries quickly became one of my favorite places to watch remotely.

A doe beds down in front of my camera
She stretches her legs
She chews her cud
She scratches an itch!

Sparring Bucks

Dallas/Fort Worth area bucks come out to spar in the twilight hours. There are places deep in the Trinity River bottoms where vernal pools keep the forest floor clear of underbrush. These open areas become arenas hosting virtual cage matches between sparring bucks. On late autumn evenings, after the weather has turned colder, you might hear the thunder of clashing antlers coming from deep inside the forest. If the sound reaches your ears, be sure there is a mighty battle taking place within!

A mighty buck enters the arena
His challenger appears before the camera!
Sizing each other up
The fight is on!

The Burrow

I found this dugout located about halfway up a tall embankment that gave way to an expansive urban creek valley. The drop off formed the boundary between a residential subdivision and a well developed greenbelt park. The area was loaded with wildlife, and I couldn’t help but to be interested in learning more about how the resident animals used this burrow. I left a trail camera behind to see what there was to see.

It turns out that the burrow was a very busy spot after dark. Many different animals came to investigate its mysteries. Some stayed for extended periods, and others did not. Most just showed a passing interest, but those critters who stayed never spent more than a few hours in the burrow. All in all, this hole in the ground was used much more like a hotel than like an apartment.

A Coyote doing some excavating
The same Coyote trying the burrow on for size
Joined by his mate!
The real reason the den was of interest to the Coyotes
Of all the animal visitors, Opossums spent the most time
using the burrow for shelter and extended stays.
This one decided to stay for the night
Several Raccoons stopped by and went inside
The business end of a visiting Striped Skunk

Opossums and Coyotes

The following set of pictures is pretty cool. This amazing sequence of photographs is largely the result of serendipity. I left a couple of trail cameras in this spot mostly based on a gut feeling. Within a few days it became evident that there were many Opossums that moved through the area regularly. Several different individuals seemed to be using this location as their route between a creek and its adjacent neighborhood.

Opossums are not my favorite animals, but the unusual number of times they passed though the area piqued my curiosity. I decided to let the camera trap run for longer than I would have ordinarily. The dramatic footage that was recorded made the effort more than worth it. See the pictures below!

A male and female Opossum have a brief discussion
I recorded pictures of this big male on several ocassions.
On this night he spent a considerable amount of time in front of the camera
Suddenly, he is attacked by a marauding group of Coyotes
The battle moves off frame… Things do not look good for the Opossum
But, a few days later this picture was recorded showing what I believe
is the same Opossum, little worse for the wear. There may be a slight injury
to his left shoulder, but other than that he seems to be doing fine

Horse Apples

Have you ever wonder what—if anything—eats those big green Horse Apples (also known as Osage Oranges)? I have read suggestions that the fruit of the Bois d’Arc tree is an anachronism—a hold over from another time. one theory I studied posited that it was big prehistoric mammals that originally fed on Horse Apples, and that the tree had evolve to satisfy their tastes and habits. In return the megafauna spread the seeds the Bis d’Arc tree. The implication was that modern mammals might have little use for the Osage Orange. I decided to set some trail cameras to find out.

In short order it became apparent that the fruit of the Bois d’Arc was very popular with at least one modern mammal—the White-tailed Deer. In particular, It was the biggest bucks that demonstrated the most interest in eating Horse Apple over the course of my trail camera survey.

Investigating a fruit still on the tree
The bucks fed readily from dropped fruit as well.
Consuming an Osage Orange
An intruder arrives
Sparring to secure dominance!

Raccoons

Raccoons are the rascals of the forest, there is no doubt. But, if you did happen to need some additional proof, trail cameras provide it in spades. We have lots of urban Raccoons in DFW—many folks would be truly shocked to learn just how many. And every last one of them gets into mischief, every single night. Raccoon antics are endlessly entertaining. It’s always a pleasure to see more of what my trail cameras have revealed about these intelligent and engaging critters!

Stand upright in a pond late at night. Something must be coming this way!
A sizable Raccoon family foraging creekside
Hunting in a vernal pool. It is amazing how well these
clever mammals are able to function in the dark of night
Heading off to forage at dusk
A momma Raccoon and her young on the prowl
A long shutter and a little bit of fog produce a Ghost Coon
Two Raccoons share the glade with a cautious deer
A Great Blue Heron watches a Raccoon with great interest
A Raccoon family heading home after a long night of foraging
It’s never too dark for a Raccoon to find its way!

Wild Hogs

Feral hogs rule the night in the Trinity River bottomlands. When a sounder of these big and powerful mammals come through the forest all other creatures yield the right of way. Many people would be surprised to learn just how many wild pigs can be found in the metroplex. Feral Hogs by the dozens inhabit the Trinity River bottoms, as well as many of its feeder creeks. Many of the places they inhabit are also very close to highly urbanized areas. On occasion these resourceful and prolific mammals even make their way into our business parks and sports complexes.

A sounder of wild pigs moving through the Great Trinity Forest
A momma pig with a typical brood

Night Herons

Night herons are so named for a very good reason… They are very active after dark! These medium-sized wading birds spend the dark hours preying on small aquatic animals. Crayfish are a favorite. In the pictures below you will find Yellow-crowned Night Herons hunting in what is little more than a drainage ditch, tucked into a forgotten corner of a Dallas-area business Park.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons are one of the two species of night heron living here in DFW—the other is the similar Black-crowned Night Heron. Both birds are roughly the same size. And both are gray in color—with only subtle differences in the details of their plumage, especially around the head and neck. Further, the Black-crowned Night Heron is generally more horizontal in its countenance, while the Yellow-crowned Night Heron carries itself in a more vertical position.

A proud-looking Yellow-crowned Night Heron hunting the swamp
Arriving on site
Capturing a crayfish!
Now comes the hard part—swallowing it!
The little aquatic invertebrate still needs to be subdued.

Owls

It takes a little luck to record an owl with a trail camera, especially if they are not your primary objective. But no matter where you set a trail camera there is a chance that one of these nocturnal birds of prey will find their way in front of it. Places where small animals such as rats, mice, lizards, snakes, and frogs frequent will almost certainly attract an owl at some point.

We have three species of relatively large owls living here in Dallas/Fort Worth—the Barred Owl, the Great Horned Owl, and the Barn Owl. At one time or the other all three have made an appearance before my cameras.

A Barred Owl stretching its wing in a forest glade
A Great Horned Owl visiting an old cattle tank late at night
A Barn Owl recorded by a trail camera is really something special.
This one was likely hunting frogs or rats.

Swamp Rabbit

My first encounter with a Swamp Rabbit occurred many years ago. I was exploring deep in the Trinity River bottomlands in far south Dallas County when I flushed one just by chance. I was immediately struck by the size of the rabbit, and commented to my sidekick, “That was the biggest cottontail I’ve ever seen!”

For years I had been aware that there was a variety of cottontail known as a Swamp Rabbit, but on that day I was not well informed about their characteristics or habits. It did occur to me that this big bunny might actually be a Swamp Rabbit, but I had to do some research on the computer to verify that they are indeed much larger than the more common Eastern Cottontail we find in our neighborhoods.

There have only been a couple of occasions since where I have been able to record pictures of Swamp Rabbits. Fortunately, as in the case with the photos below, the camera trap locations proved to be a hot bed of wildlife activity, and the pictures of many different species of animals were also recorded. This allowed me to create a composite photograph to better illustrate the large size of the North Texas Swamp Rabbit—see below!

A Swamp Rabbit in a flooded portion of the Trinity River bottomlands
A composite picture show the relative size of a Swamp Rabbit compared to other area wildlife
The moon over Dallas/Fort Worth

The dark of night can reveal a lot about urban wildlife that we wouldn’t ordinarily get to see. With the aid of a new generation of ever more capable trail cameras we can have a look at some of those secrets for ourselves. There is always something new to learn about our diverse body of urban wildlife, and there is always somewhere new to monitor with a camera trap. The possibilities are endless, and the rewards are immense. I hope you enjoyed this look at urban wildlife after dark. I’ll be out in the field again soon to record more photographs Dallas/Forth Worth wildlife making its way in the dead of night!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.